Citizen science: how you can contribute to coronavirus research without leaving the house

This article was originally published on The Conversation

As Australians try to maintain social engagement during self-isolation, citizen science offers a unique opportunity.

Defined as “public participation and collaboration in scientific research”, citizen science allows everyday people to use technology to unite towards a common goal – from the comfort of their homes. And it is now offering a chance to contribute to research on the coronavirus pandemic.

With so many of us staying home, this could help build a sense of community where we may otherwise feel helpless, or struggle with isolation.




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Anyone is welcome to contribute. You don’t need expertise, just time and interest. Projects exist in many forms, catering to people of diverse ages, backgrounds and circumstances. Many projects offer resources and guides to help you get started, and opportunities to collaborate via online discussion forums.

Ditch the news cycle – engage, gain skills and make a difference

Scientists worldwide are racing to find effective treatments and vaccines to halt the coronavirus pandemic. As a citizen scientist, you can join the effort to help tackle COVID-19, and other infectious diseases.

Foldit is an online game that challenges players to fold proteins to better understand their structure and function. The Foldit team is now challenging citizen scientists to design antiviral proteins that can bind with the coronavirus.

The highest scoring designs will be manufactured and tested in real life. In this way, Foldit offers a creative outlet that could eventually contribute to a future vaccine for the virus.

Another similar project is Folding@home. This is a distributed computing project that, rather than using you to find proteins, uses your computer’s processing power to run calculations in the background. Your computer becomes one of thousands running calculations, all working together.

One way to combat infectious diseases is by monitoring their spread, to predict outbreaks.

Online surveillance project FluTracking helps track influenza. By completing a 10-second survey each week, participants aid researchers in monitoring the prevalence of flu-like symptoms across Australia and New Zealand. It could also help track the spread of the coronavirus.

Such initiatives are increasingly important in the global fight against emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

Citizen science portal Flutracking’ was designed to allow researchers and citizens to track flu-like symptoms around Australia and New Zealand.

Another program, PatientsLikeMe, empowers patients who have tested positive to a disease to share their experiences and treatment regimes with others who have similar health concerns. This lets researchers test potential treatments more quickly.

The program recently set up a community for people who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered. These individuals are contributing to a data set that could prove useful in the fight against the virus.

Environmental projects need your support too

If you’d like to get your mind off COVID-19, there’s a plethora of other options for citizen scientists. You can contribute to conservation and nature recovery efforts – a task many took to after the recent bushfires.




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Some sites ask volunteers to digitise data from ongoing environmental monitoring programs. Contributors need no prior experience, and interpret photos taken with remote digital cameras using online guides. One example is Western Australia’s Western Shield Camera Watch, available through Zooniverse.

Other sites crowdsource volunteers to transcribe data from natural history collections (DigiVol), historical logbooks from explorers, and weather observation stations (Southern Weather Discovery).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science app eBird uses bird sightings to fuel research and conservation efforts.
eBird

Citizen science programs such as eBird, BirdLife Australia’s Birdata, the Australian Museum’s FrogID, ClimateWatch, QuestaGame, NatureMapr, and the Urban Wildlife App, all have freely available mobile applications that let you contribute to “big” databases on urban and rural wildlife.

Nature watching is a great self-isolation activity because you can do it anywhere, including at home. Questagame runs a series of “bioquests” where people of all ages and experience levels can photograph animals and plants they encounter.

In April, we’ll also have the national Wild Pollinator Count. This project invites participants to watch any flowering plant for just ten minutes, and record insects that visit the flowers. The aim is to boost knowledge on wild pollinator activity.

The data collected through citizen science apps are used by researchers to explore animal migration, understand ranges of species, and determine how changes in climate, air quality and habitat affect animal behaviour.




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This year for the first time, several Australian cities are participating in iNaturalist’s City Nature Challenge. The organisers have adapted planned events with COVID-19 in mind, and suggest ways to document nature while maintaining social distancing. You can simply capture what you can see in your backyard, or when taking a walk, or put a moth light out at night to see what it attracts.

Connecting across generations

For those at home with children, there are a variety of projects aimed at younger audiences.

From surveying galaxies to the Bird Academy Play Lab’s Games Powered By Birds – starting young can encourage a lifetime of learning.

If you’re talented at writing or drawing, why not keep a nature diary, and share your observations through a blog.

By contributing to research through digital platforms, citizen scientists offer a repository of data experts might not otherwise have access to. The Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) website has details on current projects you can join, or how to start your own.

Apart from being a valuable way to pass time while self-isolating, citizen science reminds us of the importance of community and collaboration at a time it’s desperately needed.

The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the NSW Government’s Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. She is the Vice President of Public Policy and Outreach and co-convenes the Science Communication Chapter for the Ecological Society of Australia, and sits on Birdlife Australia’s Research and Conservation Committee. She is a member of eBird Australia and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre Citizen Science Node.

Aaron Greenville receives funding from the Australian Research Council, National Landcare Program, Herman Slade Foundation, National Environmental Science Programme and a Sydney Life Grant from the University of Sydney. He is a founding member of Team Kowari, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of the kowari and member of Charles Perkins Centre Citizen Science Node.

Alice Motion receives funding from the Westpac Scholars Foundation and the Google Impact Challenge. She works at the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney where she is Co-Chair of the Citizen Science Node situated in the Charles Perkins Centre and Deputy Director (Outreach) of the Sydney Nano Institute. The University of Sydney is the host organisation of the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA) and Alice is a member of the ACSA management committee.

Cobi Calyx works for the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW Sydney, with funding from UNSW Science and the Australian Academy of Science through Future Earth Australia. She was a founding member and is now a Committee Member of the Australian Citizen Science Association.

Glenda Wardle receives funding from the Australian Research Council, Herman Slade Foundation, Central Land Council, National Landcare Program, NSW Government’s Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. TERN enabled by the NCRIS National Research Infrastructure for Australia, and a Sydney Life Grant from the University of Sydney.

Glenda is Chair of the Ecosystem Science Council and a member of the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre Citizen Science Node.

Rebecca Cross receives funding from NSW Environmental Trust and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

Rosanne Quinnell receives funding from The University of Sydney for a Student Life Grant and is member of the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre Citizen Science Node.

Samantha Rowbotham has receives funding from The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, which is was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (NHMRC) through its Partnership Centre grant scheme. Samantha is a members of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy and the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre Citizen Science Node.

Yun-Hee Jeon receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. Yun-Hee is a Lead for Charles Perkins Centre Citizen Science Node, The University of Sydney.